From the archive
Imagine an aristocrat, an enormously gifted polymath of the early 17th century. He produces two bodies of literary work: the first, under his own name, is stunningly and ineptly amateurish. The second, much more varied and extensive, exhibits great genius. The aristocrat, however, dissociates himself from this work, writing it under a pseudonym, the name of a barely literate actor and shareholder in a theatrical company. While hugely ambitious, the aristocrat is entirely egoless, allowing himself to be known as an utter mediocrity while giving credit to his work to another man. The worst part, from the point of view of someone with more ego, is not that he can never be recognized for his second body of work, but that he is stuck with inferior works in his own name. Upon the death of the actor, the leading literary lights of the day compose elegies about his (the actor’s) genius. The aristocrat is already in his grave.
I can imagine this as a short story by Henry James or Jorge Luis Borges. It is a thematically rich story and I am giving it to you to write, if you want, for no charge. I certainly won’t write it myself.
It’s true that I’m poking fun at Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. The weak point in this theory, I believe, is the one I’ve identified here: the Kafkaeque or Borgesian unreality of the story. (I don’t believe others have remarked on this.) But this is the same aspect that makes the story so suggestive from a literary point of view.